The Don Bosco Senior Center’s bingo board hangs dormant as the center has been closed to guests because of the pandemic. Chase Castor/The Beacon

Before Vickie Smith’s husband died in 2017, the couple frequented the Don Bosco Senior Center in the Columbus Park neighborhood almost daily to play pool and dance. After he passed away, Smith continued going. 

But with the center closed due to the pandemic, Smith, age 70, misses her friends. A breast cancer survivor, she’s been dealing with a variety of medical issues during the pandemic, including pain and exhaustion. Now, many of her doctor appointments are over the phone instead of in person.

“With the pandemic, I can’t get out to keep myself active like before. So it’s harder to fight,” Smith said. “You can’t really socialize like we did. And all of the social distancing when you do get out. It’s made a big difference, and I have some times when I’m kind of sad.”

For many seniors in Kansas City, everyday social interactions have been disrupted for eight months. Even before the pandemic, many felt isolated, said Barbara French, a retired psychiatric nurse who volunteers at the Don Bosco Senior Center. But now, the issue is exacerbated.

“What we are dealing with, with COVID, is uncharted territory,” French said. “No one knows how long this is going to go on, what are going to be the consequences of it. The fear of if I get it, am I going to die alone?” 

Barbara French sits at the Don Bosco Senior Center in the Columbus Park neighborhood. French is a retired psychiatric nurse who volunteers at the center. Chase Castor/The Beacon

Kadie Harry, psychologist at St. Luke’s Health System, said loneliness was already an important public health concern in older adults. Since the pandemic began, she’s noticed an increase in loneliness and symptoms of depression in her patients.

“I’ve seen higher reports of this because of the demands of being physically distant, where they would have been out of the house more spending time with family or friends, or maybe even church settings or volunteer activities,” Harry said.

A Kaiser Foundation Family study in August found that one in four adults over the age of 65 reported experiencing depression or anxiety during the pandemic.

Harry said she has also seen an increase of complicated grief in her older adult patients since many who have lost loved ones had been unable to visit them before they died or attend their funerals.

Smith lost contact with one of her friends, who had been diagnosed with brain and kidney cancer, three months ago. She tried to call, and neither of her friend’s phone numbers was active anymore

“I don’t know what happened to her, and that really bothers me,” Smith said. “There’s no closure.” 

The menu remains unchanged from the last day the center could host guests for a meal. Chase Castor/The Beacon

To stave off loneliness, it’s important for people to feel loved and connected from a safe distance, Harry said. Older adults can write letters, call or use video conferencing to stay in touch with family and friends. They also can start new projects or take up old hobbies, she said.

Finding help in Kansas City

A variety of organizations that serve older adults — senior centers, day centers, independent living homes and nursing homes — are working to make sure their clients still feel connected. 

But they all face a different set of challenges.

Ed Matheny, an independent living resident at Bishop Spencer Place, near the Country Club Plaza, would usually be at one of his children’s homes for Thanksgiving. This year, he and his wife will be staying home.

“There is no substitute, and I miss that,” he said. “I can be in touch with them, but it’s not the equivalent of a hug.”

At Bishop Spencer Place, which has both assisted living and independent living, the biggest changes for residents have been visitation limits and the lack of family interaction.

“We have a lot of activities, but families are usually very involved and do a lot behind the scenes,”  said Mendi Hanna, director of sales for Bishop Spencer Place.

Staff has been helping residents connect to their family members virtually and checking in more with higher risk residents. 

Since residents are less able to leave their rooms to exercise, Bishop Spencer Place has brought in physical therapists to visit them in their rooms. The dining staff has also been bringing meals to residents in their rooms, along with special food deliveries like chocolate chip cookies or red wine. Bishop Spencer Place has been organizing different activities that residents can all participate in without being together, like having theme days or showing movies on closed-circuit TV.

“Everybody is tired,” Hanna said. “It’s the little things.”

Staying connected while living alone 

When people are referred to the Midland Care Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly in Wyandotte County, one of the top five chronic conditions they have is a mood disorder.

“Most have a history of depression, but now also that is coupled with situational depression, kind of like what all of us are facing where our routines have changed,” said Jancy Stroud-Bush, a social worker at Midland Care.

PACE is a health care program that helps those who are at risk of needing a nursing home but who meet the criteria to stay in their own homes. It provides both medical and social services.

Since its day center closed, Midland Care has instead focused on low-risk services, such as Meals on Wheels, to provide social contact for the adults age 55 and over they serve. It also delivers medications and hygiene products, and staff do drive-by visits or visits through windows.

The Don Bosco Senior Center hosts a monthly Harvesters food pick up in their parking lot. Cars were lined up around the center and down an adjacent road. Chase Castor/The Beacon

Every participant also has a social worker who meets with them at least once a month. The center has made a push to deliver services virtually, but Stroud-Bush says that Midland Care has had to deal with access and learning curve issues.

“In Kansas City, Kansas, due to poverty and oppression, a lot of folks are doing well to just have a phone, and not necessarily a smartphone,” she said. “Using things virtually and remotely is difficult for people who are low-income.”

Midland Care received grants to buy GrandPads, tablets designed for older adults. However, at its Kansas City site, there are 60 participants in the program and only five Grandpads.

When virtual services aren’t an option

For some people, like the older adults in the urban core whom the Don Bosco Senior Center serves, connecting with others virtually isn’t an option. Many have difficulty with hearing, vision or mobility that can make it difficult to interact over the phone, as well. And about a third are limited English speakers, said Anne Miller, director at the Don Bosco Senior Center.

Many of those the center serves might not have family members in the area and face transportation barriers during the pandemic.

The center makes 370 Meals on Wheels deliveries every day, with well-known staff who are paid instead of volunteers. Staff also may deliver other products, from Depends to cat food, and check in with the seniors. Staff can also send handymen to come fix a client’s door or money to help someone pay a phone bill or prescription. Lately, they’ve been delivering fun items like word searches and Cracker Jacks that remind people that someone cares about them.

The Don Bosco Senior Center’s workout area serves more as a storage area since the center closed to guests because of the pandemic. Chase Castor/The Beacon

Every Wednesday, French goes to the center and calls seniors who may have mental health issues. She says it is harder to assess people over the phone because they are more likely to lie and she is unable to see if they are getting dressed or bathing.

French said it is also harder to refer people to mental health services or support groups during the pandemic because they are inaccessible either because they are virtual, or because transportation can be a barrier. People who are social distancing are unable to take public transportation or carpool with family or friends, which were likely their main modes of transportation before.

Staff have continued to meet with clients who need help outside but have now also set up rooms where they can talk safely and socially distanced with plexiglass during the winter.

The center plans to have more volunteers come in to make wellness check calls from its phones in the winter months. Many of the seniors won’t answer calls from numbers they don’t recognize, and calling from the center helps to protect their client’s privacy. The center also is partnering with agencies that provide holiday meals to homebound seniors.

“There are a lot of challenges to aging: the physical issues, the psychological issues and emotional issues,” French said.

“If you add on the isolation, it’s like there are so many more stressors to just get through day-to-day life.”

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Brittany Callan covered health and environment at The Beacon, and was a Report for America corps member for 2020-2021. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.